The Somewhat-Confusing Ezra-Nehemiah-Esther Timelines

Posted on September 13, 2022

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By David Ettinger

Following the Exile
The Bible books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are referred to as the “Post-Exilic” books because they cover the time period following Judah’s 70-year exile in Babylon.

Following the reign of King Solomon, Israel was divided into 2 kingdoms – the Northern Kingdom of Samaria or Ephraim, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (of which the tribe of Benjamin was part).

The Northern Kingdom of Israel went into Assyrian exile in 722 B.C., and the Southern Kingdom went into Babylonian exile in 3 deportations: 605 B.C., 597 B.C., and 586 B.C. We don’t read of the Northern Kingdom tribes returning to Israel (hence the expression, “the lost tribes of Israel”), but we do read of Judah’s return to Israel in 536 B.C. as per the decree of King Cyrus of Persia (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicle the faithful Jews who returned to Israel; the Book of Esther chronicles the unfaithful Jews who remained in captivity.

One Book in Particular
In looking at the post-exilic timeline, it is the Book of Ezra which contains the somewhat perplexing leaps in years.

For the most part, the Book of Ezra covers 2 time periods. The 1st is Chapters 1-6 which tells of the 23 years of 538-515 B.C.

Next – and this is what most readers of Ezra don’t see (because it is not mentioned in the text) – is the 57-year gap between chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 7 jumps from 515 B.C. to 458 B.C. – the year Ezra traveled to Jerusalem from Babylon.

Basically, these are the 2 timeframes of the Book of Ezra – 538-515 B.C., and 458 B.C. and following – with an exception! This exception – and adding further confusion to the account – is Ezra 4:6, which refers to an event in the reign of Xerxes — also known as Ahasuerus — (485-465 B.C.), and 4:7-23, which parenthetically relates the content of a letter written during the reign of Artaxerxes (464-428 B.C.).

Though the time mesh is confusing, the themes of the narrative are similar, hence their narrative proximity.

A More Direct Timeline
The Book of Nehemiah – on the other hand – is much more direct and not confusing at all.

Following a report of things going badly in Jerusalem, Nehemiah ­­– Persian King Artaxerxes’ cupbearer (1:11) – travels to Israel in 444 B.C., and remains there until 432 B.C. The Book of Nehemiah is a first-person account of the circumstances surrounding his return.

And what of the Book of Esther? Its circumstances occur between 483-473 B.C., which places it in the 57-year interim between the end of Ezra 6 and the beginning of Ezra 7. In other words, the events of the Book of Esther occur BEFORE the latter part of the Book of Ezra and before all of Nehemiah (though in the Bible, Esther comes after these 2 books). Or put another way, Esther herself was much older than Ezra and Nehemiah.

As an aside, most people are surprised to learn that the events of the Book of Esther occur over a 10-year period. You may read about this decade-long timeline in my short blog, “The Fascinating Book of Esther.”

Ezra & Nehemiah Tidbits
So, there’s the timeline of these post-exilic history books (there are also several post-exilic prophecy books). There is some confusion in Ezra as the timeline jumps are neither mentioned nor explained, but the themes of the books are timeless and insightful.

With this is mind, here are a few more tidbits regarding Ezra and Nehemiah (Esther tidbits can be found in the above link):

  • Ezra was a priest and scribe of the Mosaic Law (Ezra 7:21).
  • Ezra most likely had at his disposal documents of Israel’s history as he recounts events which occurred before he was born.
  • Many Bible students have noted similarities between the style of the Books of Ezra and 1 & 2 Chronicles, hence the belief among some scholars that Ezra wrote all 3 books. This, however, cannot be proven.
  • The completion of the Book of Ezra could not have been earlier than 450 B.C., when the events recorded in 10:17-44 took place.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah lived at the same time (Nehemiah 8:1-19; 12:36).
  • There were 3 returns to Israel, just as there had been 3 deportations.
  • The 1st return from exile was led by the governor Zerubbabel (Ezra chapters 1-6; and the post-exilic Books of Haggai and Zechariah) in 538 B.C. The rebuilding of the Temple was the key objective of this group of returnees.
  • The 2nd return was under Ezra (Ezra Chapters 7-10) in 458 B.C. The purpose of this return was to bring reforms to the Israelites; they needed to return to their covenant obligations.
  • The 3rd return was led by Nehemiah in 444 B.C. Nehemiah’s primary purpose was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and, as in Ezra’s time, to lead the people back to obedience to God.
  • The Book of Malachi was probably written during Nehemiah’s lifetime.

Helpful – I Hope
The post-exilic Bible books are very beneficial for God’s people as their themes and lessons can help them grow in their Christian walks. However, the timelines – when events actually occurred and how they all fit together – can be a little confusing.

I hope this brief examination of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah – and to a lesser extent, Esther – has been of help to you!